After the latest outbreak of clashes between the Palestinian quasi-state terror group Hamas and Israel, both sides have agreed on a ceasefire which no one really expects to endure. For Hamas, the ceasefire is but a tactical stepping back from its violent, terrorist campaign against Israel. For its part, even Israel doesn’t expect the ceasefire to hold, not because Israel doesn’t want it to hold, but because Israel knows that Hamas will provoke it to retaliate. On its own, the threat from Hamas is not difficult for Israel to handle. What complicates matters is the material and monetary support that Hamas has been getting from countries like Iran, Qatar and Turkey. But while the role of these countries in sustaining Hamas has been well documented, the role of another player — Pakistan — has remained off the radar. A recent revelation by a former Pakistani Minister of how Islamabad has been providing training to Palestinian militants has however made observers take notice of what Pakistan is up to in muddying the waters in the Middle East.
The ideological fount from which Hamas has sprung is organically linked to Pakistan and its jihadist orientation. The Muslim Brotherhood from which Hamas has remerged and the Jamaat Islami which is the mother organization of jihadism in Pakistan, are two sides of the same coin. This ideological link and affinity is one of the basis of the burgeoning relationship between the Pakistani state and the Hamas para-state. But there is more to the support that Pakistan gives Hamas than just the ideological connection. Hamas makes a great fit for Pakistan’s ambitions to exercise influence beyond its borders and beyond the constraints imposed on it by geography, economy and capacity. Since these constraints prevent Pakistan from doing things that normal states do to expand their influence, Islamabad (or more appropriately Rawalpindi, the city where all strategic policy is framed and implemented) prefers to use asymmetric methods to expand its footprint without leaving behind its fingerprints.
Hamas is of course not the only terrorist organization in the Middle East that Pakistan has flirted with. Links between Pakistani terrorist groups (most of which have links with the Pakistani ‘deep state’) with the Islamic State also came to light around 2015-16. There were reports of Pakistani terrorists moving into Syria to fight on the side of ISIS. A training camp in Syria was even named after a slain Pakistani terrorist — Abdul Rashid Ghazi of the Lal Masjid fame. Earlier Pakistani clerics and terrorists, including Masood Azhar of Jaish-e-Mohammad, were found to have been active in East Africa — Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania. Pakistani footprints have also been noticed in Sudan. Pakistanis were active in the Bosnian war and recently there were reports of Pakistani auxiliaries fighting on the side of the Azeri forces against Armenia. Pakistan has used its close links with both Turkey and Qatar to facilitate its entry into various Middle-Eastern theatres. Whenever a Pakistani link is uncovered, the standard line used by Islamabad to explain it away is that these are private individuals and not linked to the State. The problem is that this plausible deniability doesn’t wash down very well considering that when private individuals from Pakistan join terror groups not supported by the Pakistani state, they face a strong crackdown. One example of this is the rising number of Shia missing persons who are believed to have been subjected to enforced disappearances by the intelligence agencies because of their suspected or proven links to organizations like the Iran-backed Zainoobian Brigade.
The links with Hamas go back to the time when international sanctions were imposed on Hamas because of its refusal to denounce violence against Israel. At that time, Pakistan offered $3 million as aid for the Palestinian Authority and support for Hamas. Since then the ties have deepened. While there are limits to the monetary and material assistance that Pakistan can give Hamas, Pakistan has plenty of offer in terms of training and perhaps even some cannon-fodder for Hamas’ ‘jihad’ against Israel. The problem has been that of access to Gaza. Egypt is believed to have kept a tight leash on what moves through its territory into Hamas territory. As a result Pakistani efforts to provide ‘humanitarian assistance’ have been stymied. Some Pakistani aid agencies have tried to get Egyptian approval to reach Gaza, but failed. As far as establishing contacts and liaison with Hamas at the official level is concerned, Pakistan has been careful to avoid doing it openly lest it falls foul of the US and perhaps even Israel. Whatever liaison exists, it is believed to be through Qatar and Turkey. Jordan has been useful but more to connect with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.
In recent times, Pakistan has been doubling down in its advocacy of the Palestinian cause. But it has taken care to not do anything that establishes a direct official link with Hamas. Therefore the Pakistanis are very vocal about Israeli actions in Gaza but avoid openly endorsing Hamas. In other words, support for the Palestinian cause has become a proxy for supporting Hamas. Unofficially however Pakistani organizations, especially the Jamaat Islami and other Islamist/Jihadist groups have no compunctions or compulsions to openly side with Hamas. During a recent rally organized by Jamaat Islami in Peshawar, the Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh sent a recorded message that was played out before a big crowd. In his recorded speech, Haniyeh appreciated the support given to Hamas by Pakistan and asked Imran Khan to “take practical steps” for the Palestinian cause. He also called upon all Islamic countries to form a common front against Israel. Haniyeh went on to say that Pakistan was equally involved in Hamas’ “victory” against Israel in the recent clashes. Clearly, Pakistan’s nexus with Hamas is moving to the next level. A fact overlooked is that for Pakistan, Palestinians are mere pawns. In 1970, when it suited Pakistan a certain Brigadier by the name of Zia ul Haqlater became the Chief Marshal Law Administrator, and one of the greatest advocates of global Islam had massacred over 20,000 Palestinians in September 1970 in Jordan. Pakistan will easily reverse its stand and leave the Palestinians in the lurch if it suits its geo-strategic interests.
The ideological, sectarian and religious dimension of this nexus is only one part of the story. The other even more important aspect of this nexus is that it neatly dovetails with Pakistan’s larger strategic play in the region where it is trying to forge new alliances with countries like Turkey, Qatar and Iran, all of which are not only backing Hamas but are also arraigned against the Saudi-led bloc or Arab countries. Of course, Pakistan is careful to not rile the Saudis or Emiratis just yet because of its economic dependence on these countries. Even so, it is building up its equity with other countries in the region by using a lot of its diplomatic capital to force the Islamic bloc to come together, at least at the diplomatic level, against Israel and in favor of Palestine. Pakistan is also hoping to link Kashmir with Palestine so that the issue continues getting traction in the Islamic world.
The manner in which Pakistan went into overdrive to amplify the Palestinian issue, not just at the UN in New York but also co-sponsoring the resolution against Israel at the UNHRC in Geneva suggests a diplomatic power play against countries like Saudi Arabia and UAE which have been moving in the direction of normalizing relations with Israel. The strident stand taken by Pakistan was partly to shame these Arab countries and their pragmatic stand on Israel and against the terrorism of Hamas, and partly to raise its profile in the Arab street, which in turn comes handy in building some political leverages with the governments in Saudi Arabia, UAE and other countries aligned to Saudis. Finally, the support for Hamas and the power play in the Middle East also makes for a good fit for Pakistan to burnish its Islamic identity — the sword-arm of the Ummah and flag-bearer of Islamic cause around the world.